Putin Ally’s ‘Deep State’ Twist Is Deep Russian People

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Vladislav Surkov, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, is known for his ability to formulate the concepts that drive the thinking of the Russian leader’s inner circle. Now, as the regime appears stuck without new ideas or much political space for bold action, he’s done it again.

In an article published in the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Kremlin ideologue who once invented the term “sovereign democracy” to describe the Putin regime, argues that the system of government Putin has built for Russia will outlast its creator the way Gaullism outlived Charles de Gaulle in France or the U.S. democracy survived the death of its founding fathers. The reason, according to Surkov, is that Putin’s state understands and works for the “deep people” — a concept that is antithetical to the “deep state” of Western democracies.

Surkov’s idea goes like this: Unlike Western nations, Russia doesn’t have a “deep state” that is run by security services operating behind a veneer of democracy, The Russian state operates in plain sight: “The most brutal structures of its enforcement skeleton are visible directly on the facade, unconcealed by any architectural adornments.” Russia hardly ever has been run by merchants and liberals opposed to a police state; the power of the state has always been an obvious “defensive and offensive weapon.”

Russia, however, does have a “deep people” — “always with a mind of its own, unreachable by polls, propaganda, threats and other methods of direct study and influence.” This “deep people” can be involved in any political process, even in wars and large-scale economic experiments, superficially. “The nation’s two lives, the superficial one and the deep one, are sometimes lived in opposite directions,” Surkov wrote, “but they never merge into one."

The Putin state with its enforcement bent, expansionist drive, goal of geopolitical greatness and socially conservative impulses is, according to Surkov, traveling in the same direction as the “deep people” and thus “isn’t subject to the destructive pressures of history’s headwinds.”

This, of course, sounds like a convenient line to take when independent polls show, for the first time in years, that a plurality of Russians believe the country is going in the wrong direction and that Putin’s popularity is declining. If the “deep people” cannot be affected by polls and the Putin state reflects the power elite’s hidden thoughts and feelings, then nothing needs to change and no new ideas are necessary.

The concept of the “deep people,” which accurately explains to a degree why change is so slow to follow Russians’ publicly visible mood swings, it isn’t really Surkov’s invention, though.

Simon Kordonsky, one of Russia’s most respected sociologists and a former Kremlin aide, now a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, specializes in the informal organization of Russian society, the way Surkov’s “deep people” self-regulates outside any visible institutions. Here’s how he describes the economic part of this informal organization:

In a social sense, in the sense of relations with the state, we have the most innovative country in the world. Everyone must be creative in inventing ways of evading the state and protecting themselves against it. 

According to Kordonsky, three-quarters of Russian households are active in the shadow economy in one way or another. The more successful ones often include an official and an entrepreneur, whether official or not. Official statistics don’t even capture where Russians actually live: They miss a lot of informal, often seasonal, migration. Kordonsky, like Surkov, doesn’t believe Western sociological methods are useful for describing Russia. It’s a non-transparent society of informal “social estates” that resists change and sees the desirable future as “reproducing a better past.” 

Gleb Pavlovsky, another former Kremlin aide, now a Putin critic, discusses his version of the “deep people” in a series of books about what he calls “System RF” (the abbreviation stands for “Russian Federation”). “The social coalition on which the government leans,” Pavlovsky wrote in 2015, “is more of a foundational factor for the state than the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” To Pavlovsky, the coalition consists of millions of people dependent, in one way or another, on the financial resources of the state; in that, Pavlovsky echoes Kordonsky’s understanding of the Russian “system of estates” based on (often informal) resource distribution.

The state and the “deep people” exist in a complex symbiosis of enforcement, evasion and distribution. In this context, “deep” isn’t about convictions and beliefs; it’s about the degree of integration into an organic, institution-free system of relationships that has sustained Russia through hundreds of years of regime and social system changes. In the 2000s, Putin stopped the previous decade’s attempts to build Western-style institutions in Russia and built a powerful system of state violence on top of that informal, organic network. That violence isn’t directed against these relationships. It serves to enforce and protect them.

Mere discontent as reflected by polls wouldn’t be sufficient for the system to fall. To dislodge it, the resource distribution system, including the shadow sector barely visible to official statistics, would need to stop delivering for the majority as it did before the Soviet Union collapsed. Surkov, who unlike Kordonsky and Pavlovsky is a current Kremlin denizen, can’t say that in so many words. But it’s this understanding of the “deep people” on which his conviction of the regime’s stability rests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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